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All about alcohol…in skincare

Ethanol is common in skincare products, but it may not be right for all skin types.

Curology Team Avatar
by Curology Team
Updated on Dec 14, 2023 • 7 min read
Medically reviewed by Meredith Hartle, DO
Smiling Woman Applying Skincare
Curology Team Avatar
by Curology Team
Updated on Dec 14, 2023 • 7 min read
Medically reviewed by Meredith Hartle, DO
We’re here to share what we know — but don’t take it as medical advice. Talk to your medical provider if you have questions.

In this article

What is ethanol?
More

How often do you buy skincare products but have no idea which are the “right” kinds for you? Honestly, the options are endless, and understanding the ingredients can be daunting. 

Alcohol is an ingredient found in many skincare products, but it’s not always quite so easily spotted. One type of alcohol you might see listed is ethanol—and unlike benzyl alcohol, this ingredient is something you may want to avoid, depending on your skin type.

Given that many different types of alcohol are found in certain skincare products, it’s a good idea to understand each one so you know what you’re putting on your skin. Here, we’ll get into everything you need to know about ethanol and other types of alcohol in skincare. 

What is ethanol?

Ethyl alcohol (ethanol) is a common type of alcohol found in more products than many realize. It is the type of alcohol some may consume in beverages and is commonly used in hand sanitizers, skin and cosmetic products, food additives, and even household products. 

A main concern surrounding ethanol is its potential carcinogenicity when ingested orally. While research in this area is more established, its potential effects when applied topically to the skin are still being studied and remain inconclusive.¹ 

Since alcohol is a common ingredient in many skin and cosmetic products, it is known to have some of the following benefits:²

  • Acts as a preservative

  • Antibacterial (such as in alcohol-based hand rubs)

  • Enhances penetration of skincare products³

Aside from ethanol, there are multiple types of alcohol commonly found in skin and cosmetic products. Fatty alcohols, isopropyl alcohol, denatured, and propylene alcohol are a few. 

Fatty Alcohols

Fatty alcohols such as cetyl alcohol are a combination of alcohol and fatty oils and are typically non-irritating to the skin. Cetyl alcohol is known to have emollient properties and helps prevent drying of the skin.⁴ 

Isopropyl Alcohol

This form of alcohol is a common ingredient in hand sanitizers and is widely used in healthcare. Research has shown that alcohol-based hand sanitizers are less irritating than regular hand washing.⁵

Denatured Alcohol

Denatured alcohol is used as a solvent, or antiseptic in cosmetics such as mouthwashes, perfumes, aftershaves, colognes, and hand sanitizers, and is known to cause drying effects. Denaturants are added to cosmetic products to deter people from being able to consume them.⁶ 

Propylene Glycol

Since propylene glycol is derived from petroleum, there is some question on whether this ingredient is harmful. Some research describes it as toxic, while others discuss its beneficial skin-conditioning properties. Its safety profile appears to be dose-dependent (it has more potential to be harmful in large doses). Though propylene glycol has been tied to some skin irritation, it is used in many cosmetic and skin products and has been found to be generally nontoxic and noncarcinogenic.⁷

What types of skincare products can ethanol be found in?

Next to hand sanitizer (where ethanol is the active ingredient), another common skincare product that contains ethanol is foundation. Additionally, you can find any version of alcohol in the following products:⁸

  • Shampoo: Many shampoos contain ethanol as an ingredient. This helps to cleanse the scalp and hair, and can also help to remove excess oil.

  • Conditioner: Conditioners often contain ethanol as an ingredient to help improve the texture of the hair and make it more manageable.

  • Makeup: Makeup products such as foundation, powder, blush, and eye shadow often contain ethanol. This helps to keep the makeup in place and prevents it from smudging or running.

  • Skincare creams: Moisturizers, anti-aging creams, sunscreens, and other skincare creams often contain varying types of alcohols as an ingredient.

Is ethanol bad for your skin?

Depending on who you ask, some may say ethanol is bad for your skin, while others may not. Researchers found that of some types of alcohol, ethanol was the one best tolerated on your skin.⁹ Ethyl alcohol is unlikely to cause severe, toxic effects, but it can cause irritation and dryness.

According to dermatology providers at Curology, if you have sensitive or combination skin types (oily and dry skin), you should avoid frequent use of certain types of alcohol in skincare, as there is an increased risk of it causing skin irritation and dryness. Instead, we recommend products without any harsh alcohols, like our cleanser.

Is “alcohol-free” skincare really a thing?

"Alcohol-free" is a relative term for cosmetics and skin care products. For cosmetic and skincare products, “ethyl alcohol” is the type of alcohol that is usually being referred to when alcohol is a labeled ingredient. Given that there are multiple types of alcohol with different names, this can lead to confusion for consumers.¹⁰ However, there are no regulatory standards in place for using this term on product labels. So, while a product may be advertised as "alcohol-free", meaning it doesn’t contain ethyl alcohol, it's not always completely true as other types of alcohol may be included. 

As more consumers prioritize “natural,” “clean,” and “green” ingredients, many brands have shifted their focus towards producing such products, reducing the alcohol content in the process. Here are a few points that you may want to know when reviewing ingredient labels:

  • Alcohols have multiple names, so even if a product is free from ethyl alcohol, ingredients may still consist of other forms of alcohol listed with different names 

  • Other alcohols that may be listed include cetyl, stearyl, cetearyl, or lanolin; these are fatty alcohols

  • Denatured alcohol may be listed under various names on an ingredient list, such as SD alcohol

If you choose products claiming to be “alcohol-free”, yet it includes a degree of alcohol, this is not meant to mislead, nor does it necessarily mean that the product is bad for you. 

Benefits of alcohol in skincare

Alcohol in skincare products can be beneficial. Ethanol can be used to enhance the penetration of skincare products. Also, fatty alcohols are considered a “good” type of alcohol. One fatty alcohol, cetyl alcohol, can help prevent drying of the skin and is used as an emollient.¹¹ 

Finding ingredients that work for your skin

Alcohol is a common ingredient in cosmetic skin products. In general, ethanol in skincare is safe; however, there are a few exceptions. If you have a known allergy or have sensitive skin, then ethanol-containing products may not be the best option for you. 

If you’re unsure whether or not skincare products containing alcohol are right for your skin, Curology offers personalized skincare recommendations from licensed dermatology providers, as well as personalized prescription formulas. 

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All you have to do to get started is take a short skin assessment and submit a few selfies. Then, you’ll be paired with a licensed dermatology provider who can not only prescribe you a personalized formula with clinically proven ingredients, but also answer any questions you have about what’s right for your skin. Sign up for your 30-day trial* today! 

FAQs

Is ethanol harmful to the skin?

This is a tricky one to answer, as it honestly depends on skin type, personal preference, and which experts you ask. In a nutshell, ethanol can be irritating (most commonly to those with sensitive skin), but not all alcohol-containing products are harmful.

What is ethanol used for in skincare?

Most commonly, ethanol is used in skincare products as an astringent, preservative, antibacterial, and hand cleanser, and it even helps hairspray cling to hair!

Is ethanol good for the face?

Generally speaking, it is known to cause drying and skin irritation. That said, some people are able to tolerate products that contain this.

Does ethanol make your skin dry?

Yes, it is known to cause drying of the skin.

• • •

P.S. We did the homework, so you don’t have to:

  1. Lachenmeier, D.W. Safety evaluation of topical applications of ethanol on the skin and inside the oral cavity. J Occup Med Toxicol. (2008, Nov 13).

  2. National Center for Biotechnology Information. Ethanol. National Library of Medicine. (2023, April 1).

  3. Lachenmeier, D.W. Safety evaluation of topical applications of ethanol on the skin and inside the oral cavity. J Occup Med Toxicol. Ibid.

  4. Baharum, N.B., et al. A Study of Literatures: Status of Alcohol in Cosmetics Products from Shariah Views in Malaysia. KnowledgeE Social Sciences. (2020, July 14).

  5. Lachenmeier, D.W. Safety evaluation of topical applications of ethanol on the skin and inside the oral cavity. J Occup Med Toxicol. Ibid.

  6. U.S. Food & Drug Administration. Alcohol Free. (2022, February 25).

  7. Fiume, M.M., et al. Safety Assessment of Propylene Glycol, Tripropylene Glycol, and PPGs as Used in Cosmetics. International Journal of Toxicology. (2012, October 11).

  8. National Center for Biotechnology Information. Ethanol. National Library of Medicine. Ibid.

  9. Cartner, T., et al. Effect of different alcohols on stratum corneum kallikrein 5 and phospholipase A2 together with epidermal keratinocytes and skin irritation. Int J Cosmet Sci. (April 2017).

  10. U.S. Food & Drug Administration. Alcohol Free. Ibid.

  11. Baharum, N.B., et al. A Study of Literatures: Status of Alcohol in Cosmetics Products from Shariah Views in Malaysia. KnowledgeE Social Sciences. Ibid.

Meredith Hartle is a board-certified Family Medicine physician at Curology. She earned her medical degree at Kirksville College of Osteopathic Medicine in Kirksville, MO.

*Subject to consultation. Cancel anytime. Results may vary. 

• • •
Our medical review process:We’re here to tell you what we know. That’s why our information is evidence-based and fact-checked by medical experts. Still, everyone’s skin is unique—the best way to get advice is to talk to your healthcare provider.
Our policy on product links:Empowering you with knowledge is our top priority. Our reviews of other brands’ products in this post are not paid endorsements—but they do meet our medically fact-checked standards for ingredients (at the time of publication).
Curology Team Avatar

Curology Team

Meredith Hartle, DO

Meredith Hartle, DO

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